The Poetry Project

I am climbing the stairs…

Poems from PEN America’s Prison and Justice Writing Program

Simple typographic treatment of dark blue text on a light blue background with a subtle gradient.
cover to “i am climbing the stairs that i create with these words all the way to the top”

When we write to a prompt—whether it's answering a given question or writing under the constraints of a proposed structure—an alchemy takes place. A prompt bears an invocation to discover the position, flavor, and desire of our response. In this moment, we create an introspective archive of time and place.

When the same prompts are offered to a network of writers, a space is noticed between the mystical, personal summoning of an answer and the collective experience. For National Poetry Writing Month (NaPoWriMo), writers attempt to write one poem a day in April. In an effort to move through this challenge in fellowship with other writers, the Prison and Justice Writing Program (PJW) at PEN America distributed thirty shared prompts sourced from PJW mentors, staff, and volunteers to incarcerated poets involved in past and present program initiatives. The result of this dedicated exercise makes up the zine I am climbing the stairs that I create with these words all the way to the top, which houses the work of eighteen poets. You can access the zine digitally here.*

Featured below are three poems in the collection—written by George Wilkerson, Desi Agadar, and Brian Stevens. As Stevens writes, “Every conversation begins with a single word.” This concerted zine is meant to be engaged in its entirety, a conversation beginning with each single page—including poems, visual responses, some of the original prompts, and space to sketch in your own temporal poetry.

I am climbing the stairs honors the ritual of writing, and celebrates the relationality of building a writing structure, especially under the weight of the Prison Industrial Complex’s ongoing, and strengthening efforts to block intimate communication and collaboration. In reading the work, I hold both what it takes to return to the page day after day—in the midst of carceral spaces that function through the manipulation of time and resources—and the way in which the pleasure/drive/spark that may come from a practice is also a reminder of its necessity. As contributing poet Bryan Harris noted, “I enjoyed participating in the NaPoWrimo challenge. Now I have a collection of thirty poems written during April, and I have been given a jumpstart to make writing something new a daily practice.” Whether poetic communication is with the self, another person, or a world, there is a relationship words bend towards. It reminds me of the gift economy of language: a network that, as writers, we meet each other through.

— Anjali Emsellem, Program Assistant for Prison and Justice Writing at PEN America, and coordinator of the I am climbing the stairs zine project